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October 17, 2014

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

not-that-kind-of-girlLena Dunham is not that kind of girl, or a kind of girl at all, mostly because the idea of dividing girls into kinds is a fallacy. Girls are people after all, and people are messy, stupid, fucked up and ridiculous, which is much the point of Dunham’s TV series, Girls, and also of her book, Not That Kind of Girl, whose subtitle is pretty redundant. It’s a book as self-aware as Dunham’s oeuvre, styled on 70s’ self-help books (Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All in particular) that purported to have answers, and while Dunham does not pretend to have it all sewed up, she knows a few things, and her ambition is just as far-reaching. And so she has a book, on top of everything else, and it’s a marvellous solid object (whose vintage cover is a nice complement to How to Build a Girl, and both are just delightfully a little bit rock and roll).

No, Dunham is not that kind of girl, but she is That Girl, as the pink text is telling us. The girl who refuses to keep her clothes on (or wear clothes that fit), to stop talking, to stop talking about her vagina, to be humble, to shrug off her ambition, to hide her mental illness, or kowtow to anyone. Which is part of the reasons people hate Lena Dunham, though most of the reason people hate Lena Dunham is because people hate women who don’t give a shit what anybody thinks of them, and it becomes vicious cycle, though less vicious for the woman herself who just doesn’t care.

She writes a book instead. She dedicates it to Norah Ephron, whom she called a friend, and certainly the best parts of the book recall Ephron’s work, like Heartburn and many of her personal essays. The book has so much hype, mostly around its author, that we forget to check and see if it’s any good. Not that it matters altogether. First, because the haters are going to hate it and because everybody else is going to read it anyway. Second, because the question of goodness is just as redundant as the subtitle—Dunham is one of those figures with so much furor swirling around her that we all forget that the baseline is that she’s really, really smart and talented. Yes, the book is a bit of a mess (though anything produced from Denham’s frenetic mind was always going to be), and I’m not sure how much value is added by the random lists that appear between every few pieces (though they certainly weren’t a chore to read). And the book is organized quite haphazardly. But.

I loved reading it—a wild ride through a wild mind with an eye for detail, a raucous sense of humour, enough candour to keep even familiar stories fresh, and a knack for telling it like it is without bullshit. Oh, all the things you have to learn before you learn that you should demand no less than what you deserve—from boys and men in particular. All the compromises we make, often even willingly. Because we want to be cool. And Dunham calls it, all of it. I wish she’d been whispering in my ear throughout most of 1999 and 2000, though perhaps I wouldn’t have listened to her. I wouldn’t have listened because she wasn’t that kind of girl, and when I was that age, I thought that people had to make sense. I was certainly trying to, though failing terribly (and wonderfully, but somewhat mortifyingly, now that I think of it).

Where Dunham makes her mark as an essayist here is with several terrific acts of restraint. Not uncharacteristic restraint either, because all her storytelling is like this—she lays down the facts but she doesn’t explain. Her best work reminds me of what Susan Olding wrote about the essay form:

“Like a cat, the essay wants to go its own way. In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”

Really, it’s the same with all Dunham’s work, with Dunham herself—its destabilization is its power. Which leads to the idea that her work is messy, when it’s far more deliberate than that. I’m thinking of her essay, “Who Moved My Uterus?” about her (somewhat justified) fears of infertility, her desire to have children, the conflict between this desire and her need to continue the momentum of her career. The essay is without conclusions, because what would any conclusion be that wasn’t far too simple. Saying nothing at all, she manages to convey the magnitude and impossibility of her situation. Similarly, essays about death and her experiences in therapy never take us to where we think they will; I’m not sure many of the pieces of the book take us anywhere, but it’s the experience of reading that matters, which is usually visceral, rarely boring and always as entertaining as it is illuminating.

One thought on “Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham”

  1. I’m waiting for the audio copy of this. It’s read by the author, which will add to the reading experience, I think.

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